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TV review: Help, The North Water, and Patrick Kielty: One hundred years of union

24 September 2021

Channel 4

Stephen Graham and Jodie Comer starred in the one-off drama, Help (Channel 4, Thursday of last week)

Stephen Graham and Jodie Comer starred in the one-off drama, Help (Channel 4, Thursday of last week)

HELP (Channel 4, Thursday of last week) was a shout of rage, despair, and impotence. Stephen Graham and Jodie Comer gave this one-off drama superlative bravura performances as Tony, an early-onset Alzheimer’s sufferer, and Sarah, the care-home worker whom we would all long for to cool our brow when we need someone to perform most of our functions for us.

Sarah is the bad girl trying finally to come good: her sharp Scouse wit, charm, and cheek quickly make her an outstanding member of the overstretched team — and then Covid strikes. The programme’s anger is fuelled by criminal government incompetence and disdain, as the home is filled with patients discharged from hospital carrying the disease. In lockdown, it becomes a ship of death: the staff are not provided with the essential PPE.

The healing friendship between Sarah and Tony is a ray of hope amid the gathering darkness, until he escapes once too often, and is for his own safety deeply sedated. Sarah snaps, and abducts him to liberty, holed up in a caravan, where she believes that if she can only keep him quarantined for 14 days he will somehow be free.

It doesn’t work, of course: it ends with Tony readmitted and Sarah arrested.

The plot stretched way beyond reality: Sarah’s competence was far too angelic; Tony’s good moments were far too positive. But, for all its implausibility, this is probing and necessary drama, reanimating our sense of the enormity of how some people are treated, how their very existence carries no value, how heroic was/is the sacrificial concern of so many carers. If only it could, decisively, change attitudes and policy.

Stephen Graham turns up again as the wicked captain in the five-part costume whaling drama The North Water (BBC2 Friday). This is fantastic, almost existential, in its achievement; serious intent is signalled by the crepuscular gloom of many of the scenes, rendering the action practically invisible, and its enigmatic oracular dialogue, atmospherically incomprehensible (and so therefore surely authentic to the period).

It is best savoured — if you can bear to watch the unremitting sequence of bloody injury and the vile murder of seals and whales slaughtered in their innocence — as a spectacular and sternly moral fable: the filthy whaling ship brings its cargo of human evil and depravity to pollute the pristine beauty of the Arctic wastes.

Northern Ireland’s exceptional natural beauty provided a similarly condemning backdrop to human aggression in Patrick Kielty: One hundred years of Union (BBC1, Thursday of last week). Kielty’s Roman Catholic father was murdered by loyalists (TV, 13 April 2018); his exploration of the post-Brexit betrayal felt by disenfranchised youths, and their return to street violence, was deeply personal. Seeking friendships from all sides, he finally helped to build one of the towering bonfires that mark Protestant intransigence: threats of engulfing conflagration — or, potentially, beacons of communal hope?

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